Historian Lonnie G. Bunch III was a teenager when he heard the story of Emmett Till, the Chicago 14-year-old who was beaten and killed in 1955 for whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi.
“Like Emmett, I grew up in the North and had Southern relatives. For males of my age, [his] was a cautionary tale,” Bunch said. “I didn’t know the name, but I knew about a Northern kid who went South, ran afoul of the etiquette of the white South and was murdered.”
“I never forgot that,” added Bunch, who would go on to become the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Before he was appointed to that position, Bunch was president of the Chicago Historical Society, where he became friends with the author and historian Studs Terkel, who seemed to know everyone in Chicago, including Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. Bunch had wanted to meet her, so in early 2003, Terkel set up a lunch.
“She was very short. Her feet didn’t touch the floor when she sat in the chair,” Bunch recalled. “She told everything about her fears of letting Emmett go into the South, but she thought she had convinced him how to behave.”
After her son was killed, Till Mobley had to fight to get his casket. It arrived in Chicago locked in chains. “When it got to the funeral home, she said, ‘Open this casket,’ ” Bunch recalled. By that point, Bunch was crying. Till Mobley, who died later that year, continued on, stoically describing her son’s mangled body, which the world would see lying in that open casket.
In 2004, the FBI reopened the investigation into Till’s murder as part of a push to bring civil-rights-era cold cases to justice. Investigators exhumed his body for an autopsy, and he was reburied in a new casket. The old one was sent back to a cemetery in Chicago, where it fell into disrepair.
In 2009, Till’s family contacted Bunch about taking the casket and preserving it.
At first, Bunch worried that it would be ghoulish to display it in the museum. Then he thought back to his conversation with Mamie Till Mobley.
With her words echoing in his mind, he made it the centerpiece of a display about Till and his mother that beckons visitors to remember the nation’s history of racial violence.
Item: Emmett Till’s casket
Donor:Relatives of Emmett Till
Museum exhibition:“Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation, 1876-1968”
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